Automation will accelerate decentralization and digital transformation

As societies reemerge from lockdown, customer and employee experiences will become a digital/in-person hybrid largely enabled by workflow automation. Given their proximity to changing customer needs, service teams provide a window into how workflow automation can unlock transformation across the business.

As the vaccinated population grows, doors reopen, and more people come together again, the reality we find ourselves in will not be the one left behind in 2019. Many long for a return to in-person experiences, but at the same time, have grown accustomed to the flexibilities of a decentralized, digital-first world. As we emerge from lockdown, hitting "rewind" will not satisfy customer and employee needs. Instead, companies must create hybrid experiences that integrate both digital and in-person modalities. In addition, the growing expectations of stakeholders has created unprecedented demand for IT innovation and greater sense of urgency in the post-pandemic world. 

Even as more offline activities resume, 2020's rapid digitalization will have a large and lasting impact on both customer and employee experiences. For example, analysis of global research from Salesforce shows customers anticipate engaging online with companies just as much in 2021 as they did in 2020. That customers expect to maintain this substantial departure from their 2019 patterns suggests that the swing to digital at the height of the pandemic wasn't purely due to unavailability of in-person channels. Rather, some of these new digital experiences appear to be preferred.

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The split of online and offline customer interactions with companies

Meanwhile, on the employee front, signs suggest some of the uptick in remote work will be permanent. Harvard Business Review predicts "at least 16% of American workers will switch from professional offices to working at home at least two days per week as a result of COVID-19." Already, employers like Salesforce, Apple, and Spotify have confirmed that new work-from-home flexibility is part of their reopening plan. 

Digitalization of our home and work lives was, in many cases, already underway --  but COVID-19 floored the gas pedal, and the velocity of change has been extraordinary. Per McKinsey, within the first eight weeks of the pandemic alone, we vaulted an astonishing five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption. 

If necessity is the mother of invention, employees and technologies are what ultimately delivers it. Much of the fast innovation pace has, unfortunately, come on the backs of employees in ways that may not be healthy or sustainable. A May 2020 Salesforce survey found 35% of remote-working employees working later hours than usual, and Gallup reports that burnout rates have soared amidst the pandemic. 

However, technology can lift some of this burden. According to McKinsey research, the companies that are strong and flexible enough to execute successful responses to COVID-19 are usually those that surpassed their peers in digital technology pre-crisis. Digital technology is, of course, a broad category. While video conferencing solutions get a lot of the limelight, I'd argue that workflow automation has been equally important in helping companies transition to digital-first customer and employee experiences.

WORKFLOW AUTOMATION IN CUSTOMER SERVICE

Given their proximity to changing customer needs, customer service provides a helpful window into how workflow automation can increase team's flexibility, efficiency, and job satisfaction.

There is no doubt that it has been a challenging year for customer service employees. Research shows these teams have contended with a whiplash of increased case volume and complexity, without commensurate increases in headcount and budget.

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Changes to service organizations since pandemic

Workflow automation, however, provides needed relief. Seventy-seven percent of agents say automating routine tasks allows them to focus on more complex work -- up from 69% in 2018. It is telling that, even amidst a budget crunch, 71% of service decision makers say they're accelerating automation initiatives.

One area of service automation that's getting a lot of attention is chatbots. Currently, 83% of customers expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company -- up from 78% in 2019. This dynamic puts pressure on already-strained teams. Unsurprisingly, we've concurrently seen chatbot adoption grow at a rapid pace

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Service decision makers who say their organization uses chatbots

Chatbots can triage cases to the appropriate agent, collect basic customer information, and answer simple questions. This takes a burden off agents, so they can focus on work that's more complex, where they deliver more value and derive more purpose.

Research shows that chatbots correlate with a better customer experience as well. High-performing service organizations are nearly twice as likely to have chatbots as are underperformers.

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Chatbot adoption by service organization performance level

IMPLEMENTATION OF WORKFLOW AUTOMATION

Customer service is not alone in the patterns discussed above. Every team that's dramatically overhauled its internal processes is feeling pressure to streamline workflows. Gartner reports that even under an economic crunch, spend on automation technologies is growing by double digits. Indeed, by 2022, the firm predicts that 90% of large organizations globally will have adopted these technologies.

In a decentralized environment, workflow automation technologies take on greater importance but also become more difficult to implement. In an international survey of IT leaders conducted December through January, 87% said integration issues slow down digital transformation initiatives at their organizations. As in-person environments reopen, challenges will continue, as needed integrations span physical touchpoints for employees and customers, as well as a diverse range of home setups. As it becomes safer, we can also expect business travel and field work to pick up, bringing their own complexity.

Throughout these changes, IT teams may find some reprieve from low/no-code tools, technologies that -- like workflow automation -- are growing in demand even as IT seeks to cut costs. This is because the problem they solve is pressing: Just 37% of organizations say IT completed all the projects asked of them last year. By the end of 2025, Gartner predicts that half of all new low-code clients will come from non-IT business buyers, as citizen developers on those teams shoulder more of their own projects, decreasing the burden on IT. 

Whether through low-code technology or workflow automation, the secret to digital transformation is efficiently delegating work. Business teams must be empowered to transform their own processes, automating simple, repetitive tasks -- and in so doing, powering successful experiences, both virtually and in-person, across ever-expanding touchpoints.